Wednesday, August 20, 2008

‘Breakthrough’ desalination system could benefit UAE

Original Article

ABU DHABI // Dubai has tested a “breakthrough” water-purification system that suggests it is possible to extract drinkable water from the Gulf without hazardous waste.

The advance could solve a seawater desalination dilemma shared worldwide: what to do with the harmful brine by-product that is ordinarily dumped back into the sea?

“This is the key to the entire desalination pollution problem everywhere,” said Martin Padisak, who brought the technology to the UAE. “The UAE is one of the most promising countries to use it.”

Mr Padisak, the chairman of the German-based environmental research firm IES Technology, has been negotiating with local private companies over the past year. He said he was within weeks of developing the waste-brine recycling systems in the capital as well as in Dubai.

“It’s ready to go,” he said. “We are finalising some deals in the private sector and hope we will be launching the project very soon in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The UAE will be the first to use this process.”

The Government-owned MED desalination plant in Ajman tested whether the “zero-discharge” design could recycle the hyper-concentrated brine left over after the desalination process.

“The brine samples came to us and we analysed them,” said Buthaina Ahmed, the head of the environment lab at Dubai Central Laboratory.

The Food and Environment section’s chemical analysis report, obtained by The National, certified the samples from Ajman were processed in late April.

In an email, the Middle East Desalination Research Centre also confirmed it was aware of IES Technology’s claims, calling the advancement “technically feasible”. However, K Venkat Reddy, the senior researcher, said in the email the “economic viability depends on the requirements of the client. If environmental regulations are very stringent, it is feasible.”

The Dubai company Alta Alouf Investment Development, which conducted the commercial and technical feasibility studies, found the technology “very reasonable”.

“It could be workable around the world,” said Ismael Bitar, the firm’s general manager. “There is a big American energy company that is very interested in making a chain of these units for its desalination plant.”

GCC nations and other arid regions facing scarce water supplies have increasingly turned to desalination, which turns seawater into drinkable water.

However, the energy and ecological costs have been criticised by environmental groups. The US Environmental Protection Agency considers the saline, which is flushed back into the sea, as “industrial waste” that is harmful to sensitive marine ecosystems.

However, Mr Padisak said IES had succeeded in recycling even the waste brine. By boosting the salt concentration further to the point of crystallisation, raw dry minerals such as gypsum, potassium, magnesium and table salt would materialise, he said.

“The benefit is nothing would go to waste. We took that waste brine and produced more drinking water from it as well as the valuable minerals,” he said. “Until now, there was no technology to stop this brine from polluting the seawater.”

Scientists were previously unable to raise the concentration of the brine during desalination due to the high calcium content in seawater. However, Mr Padisak said through an ion exchange process developed by IES, “we broke the calcium barrier, which makes the rest of the process a piece of cake”.

Abdelhedi Taofik, an engineer who conducted the feasibility study for Alta Alouf Investment Development, said scientists had long discussed the concept of 100 per cent waste-free desalination systems. “This is the first time to use a zero-discharge system in the industrial field,” he said.

A paper published in April from the University of Karlsruhe, a leading research university in Germany, cites the IES design as one potential example of a commercially viable zero-discharge system. “Because of the immense ecological advantages of such systems, the developments should be carefully watched and research efforts for an effective and cost-efficient design should be intensified,” it said.

Mr Padisak would not name any of the private investors in negotiations with IES, but the company’s Dubai partner, Smart Creative, said contractors for the Masdar company were interested.

The Middle East is the world’s largest desalination market, accounting for more than half of the total volume of desalinated water. Consumption of water in the UAE is 907 cubic metres a year per capita, making the Emirates one of the largest consumers of water in the world.

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